Story Math: Two Exercises to Make Sure Your Screenplay Adds Up


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by Naomi Write + Co. in pre-writing, screenplay structure, screenwriting

While working with two different writers this week, the subject of story math came up. And you know this is one of my favorite topics. Because working with story math in mind means you’re designing a story that has certain connections that ‘pencil out.’ Meaning the story makes sense to our brains because the elements align or work together in a particular way.

It’s great to understand story math — or those connections and relationships between story elements — because when you do, you can use it as a tool to fill in the blanks that you don’t yet know about your story.

And every story idea starts out with gaps, to be sure. That’s just the nature of the process.

You might be inspired by an interesting character or a compelling story hook or a thematic idea you want to explore. Wherever you begin, the story development process then involves figuring out the other elements you need to continue building the story. And story math is a tool you can use to lead you toward elements that will work to create an effective story. Rather than just throwing darts in the dark, making arbitrary choices as you move forward.

I know I’ve talked a ton about story math before. (See:

But this week as I was working with the two writers I mentioned, we used a couple of connections (equations?) that I’m not sure I’ve touched on before. So I thought I’d share those today in the hopes that they’ll help you with your current project.

If you’re not working on a project right now? You can still play around with these ideas, get a feel for them, and then file them away for future use. Consider it your story math homework assignment.

Story math homework problem #1: The Climax at the End of the Equation

Our first math problem is a slightly different way to think about the story goal that I hope will help clarify your thinking if it’s something you struggle with defining in your screenplay.

Sometimes, even when a writer has a concept or a sense of what happens in the screenplay, they might still struggle to identify or crystalize the story goal that their whole screenplay will be structured around. You might be in this camp if the story goal you’ve identified feels vague or lacks a certain concreteness that will make it easier to write.

Sometimes this looks like swapping in something like the stakes in place of the goal. Or sometimes it’s the case when the writer has identified some other task or objective that seems like a story goal, but isn’t actually the thing that the protagonist is primarily pursuing in the story.

So this is a little test you can use to see if your story goal works:

Say you’ve identified the story goal as “to sing a song onstage.” Then the test is to ask yourself if that goal is what’s resolved in the Climax of the movie.

When you think about the end of the movie and the way it all wraps up, is the thing you’ve identified as the story goal the main thing that we’re focused on finishing, completing, etc.

Does the protagonist finally get to sing onstage? Yes or no.

It’s true, in some movies there is a change of goal (aka a goal switch). You might have that happening in your story. If that’s the case, you’ll still want to make sure that we know what we’re tracking all the way through the story. That we know what the protagonist’s goal is at all times, even if it changes at some point.

And looping back up to our original example, if your story goal passes the test and is the thing that is resolved in the climax, that’s great – you may very well be on the right track. But at this point I’d also ask whether this story goal is difficult enough and whether there’s enough conflict over it to sustain the story. Is there enough potentially stopping the character so that he has to struggle and risk in order to accomplish that thing.

Story math homework problem #2: Brainstorm Solutions to Find a Story Hook

If you start with an interesting character or relationship, like another writer I met with this week, how do you then extrapolate a story premise or hook from that?

This writer had a compelling character relationship as a starting point and was looking to generate story ideas that could showcase and utilize that relationship in the story.

One approach to generating ideas for this aspect of the story is to think about the specific problem in the relationship that the protagonist character wants to address or solve. Because that’s really the arc of a story built around a relationship, right? The transformation in the relationship as well as in the character.

So using that as a starting point, you can then brainstorm all the ways the character might try to solve that problem. That will give you possible goals or hooks to build your story around.

For example, maybe you’ve been inspired by a woman who is estranged from her adult daughter — that’s the character/relationship you’re starting with. Then you can ask what the problem at the heart of that relationship is. And perhaps you decide the problem is that her daughter doesn’t trust her, that was the basis of their estrangement. Then what could the protagonist do to solve that problem?

  • Maybe she would vow to be 100% present in her daughter’s life… but go overboard and become her daughter’s stalker.
  • Maybe when her daughter goes through an awful divorce, the protagonist would get the chance to prove how much she can be relied on by taking her daughter in as she rebuilds her life, and becomes her daughter’s support system both financially and emotionally.
  • Maybe Mom decides the only way to be trusted is to be completely open and transparent in all ways, and takes her daughter on a trip down memory lane, sharing all of the stories, experiences, and secrets that she never shared with her daughter before.

These are all the beginnings of concepts that you could continue to shape and develop, doing more story math to figure out the other elements that will make your story sturdy, entertaining, and emotionally moving.

Create your own story math

We know that good stories are cohesive. All the elements weave together into one big picture that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Finding the connections between the elements allows you to create a story that feels cohesive and works on the audience, to create the experience you want them to have.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.